Opinion: End gender imbalances — and save millions of lives

A mother with her daughter at a government hospital in Tubmanburg, Liberia. Photo by: © Dominic Chavez / World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

This year’s International Women’s Day’s theme is #BalanceforBetter because across the world, people are striving to end the gender imbalances that stifle the progress of so many.

Look around today and it’s rare to find examples of true gender balance. Whether that’s in boardrooms or governments, or in access to education or health, the balance of power and access is very often skewed against women and girls.  

When I think about what #BalanceforBetter means, I think of a mother with better financial means, who is no longer forced to choose which of her children to vaccinate or which mouth to feed.

Take the issue of health. Today, more than 800 women will die from complications related to pregnancy or childbirth. Over the next month, 25,000 women will die from vaccine-preventable cervical cancer. Over a year, more than 2.5 million children will die in the first few hours and days after birth. And 12 million girls will get married before their 18th birthday.

This is in large part due to the chronic and systemic underinvestment in the health of women and girls.

Increasing investment in the health of women and girls is one of the main reasons the Global Financing Facility was founded in 2015. At the heart of it, this is about creating stability, fairness, and equality for millions of individuals around the world. When I think about what #BalanceforBetter means, I think of a mother with better financial means, who is no longer forced to choose which of her children to vaccinate or which mouth to feed or have others decide for her when to seek care. I think of a woman empowered to choose if, when, and how many children to have.  

Of course, none of these issues are exclusively about health. All require a fairer, more gender-balanced household, community — and world. When it comes to improving women’s and girls’ health, it’s impossible to separate the struggle for more resources for health and nutrition from the fight for more funding for gender equality. Securing adequate resources for one without the other will never lead to lasting progress.

Take the prevalence of early marriage among young women and girls in some societies. This is obviously about individuals’ rights to decide, and progress means transforming attitudes toward gender balance. But early marriage is also a leading cause of serious health issues and has a significant impact on individuals’ economic well-being.

Why? Because early marriage is often a precursor to teenage pregnancies. When a teenage girl who is herself still developing becomes pregnant, her physical growth is significantly affected. This increases the risk of complications in pregnancy and birth, and the risk of death and injury increases for both the young mother and her child. It’s one of the reasons why adolescent childbearing is the biggest cause of death for 15-19-year old girls globally.

When women and girls marry young, it can also increase the risk of physical and sexual violence. The World Health Organization estimates that nearly 1 in 3 15-19-year-old women and girls in relationships have experienced violence from a male partner. Research shows that early marriage is particularly associated with higher risk of intimate partner violence. Adolescents in the most unequal circumstances are at the most risk, because they often have less decision-making power, limited personal freedom, and are more likely to be subject to harmful traditional practices.

Along with a change in attitudes, saving and transforming lives also means increasing access and use of quality sexual and reproductive health services. Providing women with modern methods of contraception is one of the highest impact public health interventions we have. Not only does it reduce maternal and child mortality by reducing unintended pregnancy and unsafe abortion, but there’s evidence that it can empower families and lead to increases in household wealth because women have more control over how many babies they have.

In one of the most closely studied family planning programs ever implemented, households in Bangladeshi villages that received a comprehensive family planning intervention had 40 percent higher earning and reported 25 percent more physical assets than those in villages without the interventions.

However, family planning is on the cusp of a crisis — with a funding gap widening and endangering the progress made in recent years. Over the three years from 2018-2020, there is estimated to be a funding gap of nearly $800 million in low- and middle-income countries. More women know about and want access to contraceptives — but the funding isn’t matching up to this need. It makes no sense when such a simple need with such a huge impact goes unmet.

GFF is one of the partnerships supporting the Human Capital agenda, with a focus on women. GFF helps governments prioritize and finance the health and nutrition of women, children, and adolescents — an essential step to accelerate progress on universal health coverage, reduce poverty, and help countries reach the Sustainable Development Goals and compete successfully in the 21st century global economy.

It’s been said that, at current rates, the global gender pay gap will take another 200 years to close. But with the right investment, the gender health gap can be eliminated within a generation.

The answer is to put women, children, and adolescents at the heart of national health strategies that are adequately funded and provide the basic health services that women, children, and adolescents need to survive and thrive. These include as pre- and postnatal care; quality maternal and newborn services; and prevention and care during early childhood, including vaccinations, family planning and nutrition. These are some of the basics that so many of us in the world take for granted, but we still have a great imbalance within and between countries.

Today, on #IWD2019, let us celebrate International Women’s Day to remind us of the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women and feminist advocates — while also recognizing there is still a long way to go and mark a call to action for accelerating gender balance.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Mariam Claeson

    Mariam Claeson, M.D., M.P.H. is the director of the Global Financing Facility since October 2016. She previously served as the director for maternal newborn and child health at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which she joined in July 2012.